Montana Fire Crews Brace for High Winds

MISSOULA, Mont. (AP) -- Firefighters cautiously let more residents return to their homes west of here Monday, but strengthened fire lines around them and braced for more trouble from gusting wind.

About 50 families who fled when the fire exploded Saturday night were the latest to return, fire officials said. Two other areas where about 20 families were evacuated remained off-limits Monday.

In all, about 250 families were evacuated when the fire surged across some 6,000 acres in about two hours, burning three homes. Firefighters say they successfully used retardant foam on about 100 other homes in the fire's path. The blaze stood at about 7,300 acres Monday.

The Forest Service reported that 63 major fires were burning in the northern Rockies _ about 40 of them in Montana.

The fire near Missoula started nine miles west of the city and has burned generally eastward. The area around Missoula is heavily populated, with many homes in forested areas beyond that.

High wind triggered the Saturday night blowup, and fire managers Monday were keeping a nervous eye on forecasts of another approaching front.

Crews were bracing for more strong wind as early as Tuesday and ``we are continuing to have reports of new startups from the lightning in the early part of last weekend,'' said Susan Rinehart, a fire information officer.

Fires also continued to threaten power lines in several areas around Missoula, including one that carries power for the Bonneville Power Administration to eastern Washington, and a NorthWestern Energy line that provides power to the Bitterroot and parts of Missoula.

South of Missoula, another complex of wildfires had burned across nearly 15,000 acres by Monday.

Because of that spreading blaze, Missoula County sheriff's deputies during the weekend evacuated residents of two areas about a mile from the town of Clinton, less than 10 miles from Missoula.

Eleven fires active Monday in Montana had each blackened at least 10,000 acres, and the biggest, on the northwest edge of Glacier National Park, had covered 43,000 acres.

In Wyoming, crews worked Monday to douse hot spots and clear burned trees from along one of the major routes into Yellowstone National Park, fire officials said. The highway from Cody, Wyo., to the park's eastern entrance has been closed since Thursday.

That fire had burned 14,000 acres along a 12-mile stretch of the highway. Firefighter spokesman Greg Thayer said authorities hoped to reopen the road later this week.